Parents, friends, and others who want to support survivors of sexual assault may not know exactly how to do so. These loved ones may feel helpless and worry about saying the wrong thing or pushing too hard when attempting to offer love and support. We share some of the best tips for supporting survivors so that you can help them feel empowered and start on the road toward healing.
- Accept that you will not have all of the answers or be able to fix it.
It can be especially frustrating to help a loved one who survived sexual assault, because you may feel overwhelmed and struggle with not knowing exactly how to help, even though you wish you could make things better immediately. It is important to keep in mind that just being there for the survivor can make all of the difference in the world. Your loved one does not expect you to have all of the answers, and they know that you cannot repair the damage.
However, you can listen and let them know that you care. Offer unconditional support and believe them. You respond to them in non-judgmental ways and offer support in any way that you can. Do not blame them, question them, or push them for more information. Let them know that you believe in them and will support them for as long as it takes. You also need to validate their feelings and acknowledge them in positive and empowering ways.
- Help them feel empowered and regain control over their life.
One of the worst effects of sexual assault is the sense of helplessness that it instills in the victim. They lose power during the assault, so it is critical for you to support their decisions and choices to help them regain a sense of control over their life. Avoid telling them what to do, but offer suggestions and options to help them make decisions that are right for them. Share resources with them for other support systems, such as counselors, sexual assault support groups, and others.
You also could suggest that they ease back into a routine that does not involve a great deal of stress by finding a job that serves a therapeutic purpose. There are many options for working at home or working with their hands that would empower them by allowing them to work as much or as little as they’d like. For example, they could set her own hours and rates by becoming a dog walker. Studies show that petting and playing with dogs reduces stress and alleviates depression and anxiety.
- Take a cue from the survivor themselves.
Each sexual assault survivor deals with the trauma in different ways. While some victims become depressed and struggle with getting out of bed, others do not view it as a catastrophe. You need to validate their feelings, acknowledge their pain, and follow their lead. Try not to let them live in denial or minimize the assault, but do not make it an earth-shattering experience if they do not view it as such. You need to pay particular attention to their attitude while avoiding making assumptions that you know how they feel or dictating how they should feel.
- Be aware of the warning signs of suicide.
It is important for loved ones of sexual assault victims to understand the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors: Rape victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide after rape than non-rape victims, and they are 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to attempt suicide. In fact, 1 in 3 rape victims report seriously contemplating suicide.
There are warning signs of suicide that loved ones should look out for when supporting sexual assault survivors. You should be concerned if your loved one expresses feeling like a burden to others, feeling trapped, having no reason to live, or thinking about killing themselves. You also should be concerned if they increase their use of drugs or alcohol, participate in reckless behavior, withdraw from activities, sleep too much or too little, tell people goodbye, or becomes aggressive. If they are depressed, irritable, anxious, humiliated, or lose interest in friends, hobbies, and other activities that used to bring them joy, you should be concerned.
If you fear that your loved one is having thoughts of suicide, get help for them right away. Options include our 24-Hour Help Line (919-967-7273) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
- Be aware of the increased risk of substance abuse.
Sexual assault victims also are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than those who are not victims. In fact, rape survivors are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. They may look to drugs and alcohol in hopes that self-medicating will ease PTSD, depression, and anxiety. If you fear that your loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, you can help them seek treatment.
Steve Johnson is a guest blogger who co-created PublicHealthLibrary.org as part of a school project. He and a fellow pre-med student enjoyed working on the site so much that they decided to keep it going. Their goal is to make PublicHealthLibrary.org one of the go-to sources for health and medical information on the web.